Speculative housing developments across several Kent districts are now more likely to be given the go-ahead, after their councils failed to deliver enough new homes.
It means that if these local authorities now reject a proposed housing scheme, it is more likely a planning inspector will overturn the decision.
But council bosses in Canterbury are urging the government to temporarily suspend the sanctions, arguing Covid and the issues at Stodmarsh mean it should be cut some slack.
The Conservative-controlled authority needed to hit at least 75% of its target - set by the government - of delivering 2,323 new homes in the district between April 2018 and March 2021. But new figures published by the Department for Levelling Up, headed by Michael Gove, show just 1,509 were built.
Gravesham council performed worst, hitting just 57% of its target. At the other end of the scale, Maidstone smashed its target of 2,279 homes, with 3,878 built.
Not hitting the target means the policies in the councils' current Local Plans, which restrict or control the supply of housing, are now deemed out of date. Councillors and officers must now make decisions on planning applications in line with the “presumption in favour of sustainable development”.
The councils will also pick up the costs of any appeal.
The sanctions will remain until the government publishes results showing the councils' delivery is back to 75% of its target.
It comes after KentOnline revealed last week how sales of new-builds in Kent have been falling over the past five years, with many local first-time buyers in Canterbury now looking to places like Thanet.
Canterbury City Council chief executive Colin Carmichael said: “While we are confident we will get back to hitting 75% of our target quickly, it cannot be right to punish councils that are working hard to do what the government asks even when most of the levers councils need to pull are out of its control.
“Our rate of delivery has been affected by the impact of Covid-19 on the building trade, especially around the supply chain, and also on the economy more generally.
“The issue of water quality at Stodmarsh has prevented us from granting permissions on otherwise perfectly good sites.”
Last year, Natural England raised concerns over the impact of construction on the wetlands at Stodmarsh, which are deemed to be suffering from high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous. As a result, housebuilding across east Kent has stalled for several months.
Legal challenges have also delayed major housing developments which had been approved by the council, such as the proposed 4,000-home Mountfield Park estate in south Cantebury.
Mr Carmichael warned: “Unless the government listens, this will now open the district up to speculative development which campaigners would never have envisaged nor intended.
“Indeed, we feared we might be in this position some months ago. While the government did cut councils some slack for the pandemic, it is not and was never enough.”
Mr Carmichael says he wrote to the department in October, urging the government not to “punish” the council for the factors affecting housing delivery that are “out of our control, especially the effect of a lack of investment in sewage treatment in our district and agricultural practices on Stodmarsh”.
He also highlighted that it is developers “that decide when to bring the diggers in after we have granted permission and they are driven by market forces”.
Mr Carmichael added: “I also pointed to our previous track record on housing delivery since the Housing Delivery Test was introduced - between 117% and 87%.”
He says his letter has not been acknowledged.
City council leader Ben Fitter-Harding says pulling together a Local Plan is too painful a process for its protections to be suspended in this way.
“We have made it very clear that we recognise the fact more people than ever need housing and we have worked hard to pull together Local Plans that are designed to deliver while trying to balance the need to protect as much open space as we can, delivering crucial pieces of key infrastructure to improve people’s quality of life and to create jobs,” he said.
“Each plan goes through extensive public consultation and throws up all sorts of painful, difficult and controversial choices that force the crop of councillors at the time to make very difficult decisions.
“Those decisions are necessary to deliver the housing targets that central government imposes on us all.
“To be punished by our Local Plan ceasing to hold any sway is unfair and unjust when so much is out of our control.”
Canterbury is among 51 councils across the country being punished.
Several others in Kent have also failed to hit 75% of their new homes target: Medway has delivered 67%, Tonbridge & Malling 63%, Sevenoaks 62% and Gravesham 57%.
Yet some councils in the county, like Maidstone, have exceeded their target, with Ashford hitting 118% of its target and Dartford 105%.
Elsewhere Tunbridge Wells delivered 97%, Dover 88%, Folkestone & Hythe 85%, Swale 78% and Thanet 78%.
What do other councils have to say?
Medway has the highest target in Kent and the council prepared a housing delivery test action plan in August to boost the number of new homes.
In 2019/20, more than 1,100 homes were built, which is the highest annual amount in Medway in 22 years.
Cllr Alan Jarrett, leader of Medway Council, said: “Medway is committed to delivering new homes to meet its residents’ needs, as well as much needed new amenities such as schools, but we will do this within a sustainable way that’s best for Medway’s future.
"We are working hard to achieve sustainable and realistic growth for Medway’s residents, providing additional facilities with new homes. However, we face an uphill struggle to reach the target we’ve been given by government of building 28,300 new homes by 2037.
“While drafting Medway’s Local Plan we have carefully considered how the area could evolve including providing sufficient jobs and infrastructure for a growing population, as well as maintaining Medway’s parks and historic sites. We remain committed to protecting Medway’s bright future and not adding to the pressures our services and health care providers already face.
“We will do all we can to protect Medway and ensure it remains an excellent place to live, work, learn and visit for now and in the future.”
The government announced last year that as Gravesham not met its target for the previous three financial years, the council should grant planning permissing to new housing unless the adverse impacts significantly and demonstrably outweigh their benefits.
The council is progressing work on its Local Plan for 2023, which will need to demonstrate a five-year land supply for the new homes developers can build to meet government targets, adding to the pressure to approve developments.
Cllr John Burden, leader of Gravesham Borough Council, said: "We find ourselves in an increasingly difficult and untenable position as a result of falling short of the government’s Housing Delivery Test targets.
"While we can grant permission for developments, we do not have the powers to force developers to deliver sites with planning permission, and the government figures are based on completed new homes and not on those with planning permission in place.
"We are working hard to progress our emerging Local Plan and will be going out to public consultation on the latest draft later this year.
"We have an action plan in place that looks at how we will act in our various roles to ensure more homes are built in the borough, thus meeting government targets; supply and demand issues; and what infrastructure and public service provision will be needed to support the new homes.
"However, our action plan cannot tackle national issues such as lack of HGV drivers, cost of building materials and labour, which are hindering development."
Last year the council appointed to a new assistant director (strategic regeneration) and one of his key roles is to work with developers behind a number of substantial brownfield site developments in Gravesend and Northfleet to ensure they are delivered.
Cllr Burden added: "Work is well under way on The Charter in Gravesend town centre and we have worked with developers to make the most of other sites, for example raising the number of the new homes proposed at Albion Waterside, part of the canal basin area.
"But we do not have enough of those sites to provide the five year land supply we need to show we have. All parts of the borough have their parts to play in identifying sites that enable us to achieve that."
Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council is not calling on the government to suspend the sanctions, and is pushing ahead with its Local Plan in order to meet the targets.
Cllr Julia Thornton, the Sevenoaks District Council’s cabinet member for development and conservation, said: “The council worked hard with its local communities to deliver a Local Plan that provided sites for much needed new homes and protected the 93% of land in Sevenoaks District that is designated as Green Belt.
"The published figures come as no surprise given that, in 2020, the government’s Planning Inspector chose to reject our Local Plan, which met 90% of the future homes needed for the district.
"We are now being punished by the Government for decisions made by an agency of the government headed by the Secretary of State.
"If the government is serious about housing delivery, then it has to play its part. This means working with local authorities who are doing all they can to put up-to-date Local Plans in place, taking responsibility for the decisions made by their own planning inspectors and doing more to encourage developers to build the homes they have planning permission for.”
What does the government say?
A Department for Levelling Up spokesperson said: “Despite the huge challenges faced during the pandemic, we delivered more than 216,000 homes in England in last year - well above the 186,500 forecast for the whole of the UK.
“In recognition of the disruption caused by the pandemic, we have also reduced the number of homes that councils are required to build through our housing delivery test.
“The Housing Delivery Test makes sure that when planning permission is granted, homes are built.”